Whims of Freedom: Two revolutions through the aura of nostalgia

Sara Elkamel, Saturday 21 Jun 2014

Whims of Freedom, a documentary-musical-theatre performance directed by Laila Soliman, and performed at Cairo's Makan, explores Egypt’s 1919 Revolution, drawing parallels to today

"Whims of Freedom" rehearsals. (Photo: courtesy of the director)
"Whims of Freedom" rehearsals. (Photo: courtesy of the director)

What is nostalgia? A wistful affection for the past. Yes. But why then is nostalgia painful? Because you remember; yes, but not quite. Because memory is elusive; because the details have worn out, and you are left with a pang, a word, a song, a photograph.

Directed by Laila Soliman, 'Whims of Freedom,' a two-woman, one-hour long documentary-musical-theatre performance held at Cairo’s Makan until Sunday, 22 June, pieces together stories from Egypt’s 1919 Revolution — the nationwide uprising against the British occupation — while drawing parallels to a contemporary context of struggle and revolution.

Just as you think that the present is uncoloured by the aura of nostalgia associated with memories of a granulated history, this production, co-written by Soliman, cultural historian Alia Mossallam, and the performance’s two actresses, Zainab Magdy and Nanda Mohamed, blurs the lines between past and present.

"The project is about reading the past through the present, and reading the present through the past," director Laila Soliman tells Ahram Online at her downtown office a few days before the performance. 

After its three-day Cairo debut, the performance will travel to London, where it will show as part of the London International Festival of Theatre's (LIFT) 'After a War' programme (27 to 29 June), for which it was originally commissioned.

When LIFT asked Soliman, alongside 20 international theatre groups, to work on a production that reacts to World War I, she decided to look at the 1919 Revolution, which was rendered all the more adamant following the brimming agitation towards the British during the war, into which an estimated 500,000 to a million Egyptians were dragged. 

'Whims of Freedom' proposes a revisionist account of a moment that has gone down in history as one of heightened nationalistic zeal. In doing so, it reflects on the prevalent discourses that history retains as well as the stories that remain stuck, unremembered in crevices of time.

A blend between documentary material and personal reflection, the narrative revolves around revealing the selectivity of memory, of archival material, and ultimately, the selectivity of history. “Archives are collective, like collective memory, and just like memory has holes, archives also have holes,” says the lecturer, played by Zainab Magdy.

The performance consists of two women, Magdy and Nanda Mohamed, and as dramaturgist Julia Schulz would have it, the rapport between them acts as the vehicle driving the narrative forward.

It is a “lecture gone wrong,” Soliman describes, with the lecturer dressed in a dark green blazer, her eyes behind oddly shaped spectacles, and curls cut short atop her head. She is feisty and determined to stay focused on delivering the findings of her research about the 1919 Revolution — which varies from biographical material about two Egyptian singers, Naima Al-Masreya and Mounira El-Mahdia, to rape reports from the time — to an unidentified classroom, played by the audience.

But her monologue is intertwined with that of the singer, Nanda Mohamed’s. While the lecturer is mostly unvarying in character, assuming the stern researcher persona throughout, the singer is anything but. She oscillates from sarcasm to painstaking personal reflections and anecdotes. The singer operates a vintage gramophone and wears a long plum-colored dress and her brown hair is long and wavy. The juxtaposition in their appearances — devised by costume designer Lina Aly — would set the tone for their roles; the modern researcher who is reflecting on the past from a podium rooted in the present, and the singer who is unable to escape the tentacles of the past.

Due to the current struggle and unrest, and Soliman’s subversive productions in recent years, including 'No Time For Art' and 'Lessons in Revolting,' it was not surprising that this performance about a revolution, albeit one that took place a century ago, drew clear parallels to the revolution that erupted in Egypt in 2011. The events of Maspero (October 2011) are mentioned outright, for instance, and the Law of Illegal Assembly of 1914, written by the British and over which much debate currently exists, is at one point recited in full. This recitation was perhaps anti-climatic, and contrasts rather unsettlingly with the emotive and heart-rending language otherwise used across the performance.

The performance is site-specific, with no stage and no set. It does not follow a linear narrative, and interjects strands of personal material, documentary history, and singing.

The atypical nature of the performance is reflective of the three-month long journey of research that led to its conception. Soliman calls it a "documentary lecture musical performance."

"It sometimes gets a bit out of control," she adds.

The rally between the two women is exciting yet somewhat exhausting to watch; the singer relentlessly interrupts the lecture, and almost every time she does the lecturer silently expresses exasperation. This dynamic is perhaps emblematic of the nature of research; however systematic it claims to be, uncovering new material does not cease to derail you, surprise you and, ultimately, to frustrate you with your own lack of control. Still, the irritation on the lecturer's face does grow somewhat tedious.

The director worked with a cultural historian, Alia Mossallam, and a musician and music researcher, Mustafa Said. Together, they sifted through piles of archival material. Some of the documents found are projected on the dilapidated, chipped walls of the performance space at Makan, giving the yellowed documents an added sense of age.

"The performance is based on what we found and what captured our attention most," says the director. "We started with very specific questions and due to lack of resources, we ended up going somewhere else entirely."

The list of kick-off questions is so broad and so long Soliman simply cannot recite them off the top of her head. "We all came up with a list of a thousand questions," she says, her smile confirming that the figure is not hyperbolic.

She says the main list of queries, however, included: "political songs in theatre (from 1917 to 1920), women entrepreneurs (from 1914 to 1920), singers and actresses during 1919, how did countryside events relate to the city, censorship (1914-1920), the economy of theatre, who writes history and what do they write about it."

Working with the acute knowledge that some parts of history are often consigned to oblivion, the group worked overtime to ask the questions that are often overlooked when stories are told about 1919. They uncovered many previously unseen corners of the revolution, mostly about the prominent role of women in the uprising.

"We couldn't address everything in the play in a direct way, but somehow it comes through, and somehow it moved us, and somehow you feel it," Soliman says.

Because she was dealing a subject of massive scope, and because the research piled up beyond her grasp, the director is strongly aware of her lack of control over the outcome. "Because the questions were always changing, and you could not always find answers, I couldn't have complete control over form. The questions and the ideas changed a million times," she says.

The lecture is punctuated with the rapturous singing of Nanda Mohamed. She breaks into popular folk songs such as 'Salma Ya Salama,' 'Ya Aziz Einy,' or 'Pardon Ya Wingate,' but she does not deliver all songs the same way. At times she is stiff, almost robotic, such as when she sings 'Pardon Ya Wingate,' as she uses the makeshift podium as a drum. At one point her face is expressionless, and it is as if these words she sings have no meaning to her — as though the song were force fed to her and she is merely mindlessly regurgitating it. At other times her performance is brimming with melancholy.

"I chose for artistic reasons to work with a Syrian actress, Nanda Mohamed, because she's a good singer and actress and lives in Egypt, and of course it moves the content somehow,” says Soliman. “So the performance is not about Syria, but it definitely also draws lines and parallels to Syria."

One of the highlights of the performance is the painfully poignant miniature monologues where Nanda drifts off into daydreams about her family in Syria, including her cousin Fadwa who fears they will never go back.

“Maybe in a hundred years there won’t be anything left about today … or who knows what they’ll know about today,” the singer poignantly says.

Atending the one-hour long performance at Makan, one is confronted with the painfulness of a history that cannot be controlled even as one lives it. But also evident is the magical ability of theatre to capture fleeting moments of history that may — and probably will — be forgotten or left out of the dominant narrative.

Friday, 20 June, Saturday, 21 June, and Sunday, 22 June, at 8pm.
1 Saad Zaghloul Street, opposite of Saad Zaghloul's tomb, Downtown Cairo

'After a War' will take place from 27 to 29 June.
Battersea Arts Centre
Lavender Hill, London SW11 5TN, United Kingdom

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